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Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, Jewish festival of freedom

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Hanukkah menorah alit with candles. Photo via Pixabay.com.

Tonight starts Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for “Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.

Hanukkah is sometimes called the Jewish Christmas, and the first night falls on Christmas Eve this year. But the two holidays have overlapped only eight times since 1900, according to Vox. And the founding events of Hanukkah are not related to Christmas; they took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.

At the time, Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.

The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but found only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.

Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle is lighted each night, until by the last night, the whole candelabrum is ablaze.

Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate, for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.

A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin . The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”

— James D. Davis



Written by Jim Davis

December 24, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Holiday Almanac: Easter for Eastern Orthodox Christians

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The world’s quarter-billion Eastern Orthodox Christians will begin celebrating tonight as Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead, a week after their fellow believers in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.

A typical Eastern Orthodox cross, worn by a priest at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Miami Lakes, Fla. Photo by James D. Davis.

A typical Eastern Orthodox cross, worn by a priest at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Miami Lakes, Fla. Photo by James D. Davis.

The founding events are the same: Three days after Jesus’ corpse was entombed, women came to embalm it, but found the tomb open and empty. Jesus then appeared to them, then to his disciples, then to crowds of hundreds, before ascending into heaven.

For most Orthodox, the climax starts late tonight with the Resurrection Service. At midnight, the pastor carries a lighted candle in the darkened sanctuary to proclaim, “Come, receive the light from the light that is never overtaken by night …”

The flame is passed on to his congregants’ candles. Then the pastor and choir sing hymns outside the church and return for the Pascha, the Easter liturgy.

Eastern churches — Greek, Russian, Antiochian, Coptic and other branches — usually celebrate Easter a week or two after their Protestant and Catholic brethren. They reckon the date after the Julian calendar under a formula no longer used by Western churches. This year, however, the eastern and western dates coincide.

Sunday worship features an Agape service, in which the biblical story of Jesus’ resurrection is read in several languages. Greek Orthodox churches bless and distribute red eggs at the end of the service to symbolize the resurrection.


— James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

April 19, 2014 at 9:00 am

Our shared spiritual heritage

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Did you know there’s an Irish burial mound that goes back to 3200 B.C. — perhaps older than the Egyptian pyramids and the Indus Valley cities?

Statue of Gudea, a Sumerian governor from the third millennium B.C.E. From Allan T. Kohl and AICT.

Statue of Gudea, a Sumerian governor from the third millennium B.C.E. From Allan T. Kohl and AICT.

And a temple complex on Malta that’s just as old?

And a figurine from Turkey of a mother goddess, as old as 5750 B.C.E.?

I didn’t know all that either, until I found Art Images for College Teaching, which has dozens of pictures for free downloading. It’s the work of Allan T. Kohl, an art historian in Minneapolis, who amazingly shot all the photos himself.

My favorite parts are the ancient and prehistoric galleries. They have some expected things, like the bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and the bull sphinxes of Assyria. Also the marvelous blue Ishtar Gate, restored at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, with its alternating rows of bulls and dragons.

But they also have lesser-known treasures, like a wealth of burial mounds and settlements across western Europe. Plus a sitting mother figure from Catal Hoyuk, Anatolia — going back as far as the seventh millennium B.C.E. Also a Minoan bull altar and murals by the Etruscans, who preceded the Latins in Italy.

One drawback of this otherwise wonderful site is the lack of info on what we’re looking at. Kohl typically names the object, its location and date, and where it is now. Nothing more on, say, the Sumerians or the people of the prehistoric Orkney Islands. Kohl does, however, supply a list of scholarly works you can hit to check it out yourself.

And just as amazingly, Kohl says he’ll let anyone download the photos free, for educational purposes.

Written by Jim Davis

August 25, 2009 at 4:37 am

Thanksgiving on the Web

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Thanksgiving holds a peculiar status as a hybrid religious-secular holiday. It combines history, heritage, religious ideals, family values and an opportunity to reach out to people different from yourself.

The day is even more American than July 4, says rabbi-journalist Marc Gellman.

“On Thanksgiving we have it all: football and the Macy’s parade, family gatherings combined with an atmosphere of civic virtue that effortlessly morphs into secular thankfulness for the nonreligious and thankfulness to God for the pious among us,” his 2007 article in Newsweek says. “Thanksgiving Day embraces us all.”

Mary Fairchild of About.com has a fairly crisp report on the purpose and origins of the day, with some interesting trivia thrown in. Example: Seven other nations — Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Korea, Liberia, and Switzerland — have their own Thanksgiving days.

The Pilgrim Hall Museum in modern Plymouth, Mass., has valuable information on the Pilgrims and how their faith affected their Thanksgiving observance. Among the museum’s religious treasures is the Bible of Pilgrim leader William Bradford (shown below).

More info is at Plimouth Plantation, a reconstruction of the 17th century Pilgrim settlement. Its Web site has historical background on Thanksgiving, both on the Christian settlers’ side and that of the native Wampanoag tribe. But it also questions how religious the 1621 harvest festival was.

Interfaith services are a large and growing Thanksgiving tradition, when people of various religious gather to voice gratitude together.
Here are some suggestions for planning an interfaith Thanksgiving service, from an official of the United Methodist Church.

Some tips: Talk with other faith communities on the meaning of giving thanks; discuss the look of the venue; plan food and drink afterward, so people can mix. The nice thing is that the plans also work for other occasions besides Thanksgiving.

Not that the spiritual facet is unchallenged. Even a year ago, Slate magazine carried a report on a cultural war brewing around Thanksgiving, something like that over religious themes in Christmas. Writer Andrew Santella wrote in somewhat snarky terms about the religious right alarmists who wanted to make everyone thank the same God as they did.

But Santella ultimately lands on the side of thankfulness: “Do we really have to choose between the extremes of calling Thanksgiving a religious holiday or a civic celebration? Can’t we assume that the holiday has evolved as some more subtle mix of the secular and the spiritual, one that each of us can adjust according to our own values?”

Quite a lot to digest with our turkey and pumpkin pie.

Written by Jim Davis

November 22, 2008 at 4:01 am

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